Coffee farm economics — further reading

By Dale Harris

Thanks to everybody who showed interest, submitted links and comments and shared this first article. We’re so excited to see how together we can begin building resources and information that helps baristas better understand their coffees and share them with their customers in a more exciting way.

We wanted to start with something complicated and underwritten about, and we hope that anyone with information or thoughts on this continues to contribute — the post will remain open to comments and I’m extremely interested to hear about examples from elsewhere in the world - particularly African countries where land ownership and specialty coffee selling has very different implications.

We'd like to present you with some options for further reading — and please keep posting your thoughts, comments, and links to more interesting articles!

Thijs Van Meurs (Square Mile Coffee) contributed the following links to articles he found useful to his understanding of these issues, which point at challenges in financing and pest control confronting all farmers, but particularly those taking risks in order to produce the best quality

Access to Finance for Central American Coffee Farmers
This is about the several ways farmers could get financing. It is hard for smallholders to get a loan especially in a time where it is most needed, now that the aging of the trees and leaf rust requires replanting.

Rust & Resilience
This feature article in Fresh Cup magazine is about how the leaf rust has affected farmers and their livelihood. The growers are experiencing a time where things are different than before, and they need to adjust to that. I also just like the way this is written.

The leaf rust issue ties in well with Pascale Schuit’s comments (sadly we can't link directly, but do read them at the bottom of the original article!) regarding the varieties grown by specialty farmers and the additional costs of pursuing such a strategy. 

Pascale (Union Hand Roasted) also makes the hugely important point that the significant majority of growers' ability to make their farming sustainable is limited by the amount of land they own. This raises a question for the industry in how we help such growers reach a market so we can taste their coffees — I wonder what flavours we’re not experiencing because of this logistical but ever-present challenge?

The statistics on yields are also incredibly interesting, and beg further calculations and questions. Maximising yields suddenly becomes key to the viability of farming sustainability, but doesn’t always gel well with pushing for the best quality. This underscores the need for the best and most up-to-date farming and agronomic education for all size of growers, and that in turn requires investment in networks, training facilities, research, etc. I’m interested to see how organisations from consuming countries (such as WCR, SCAA, SCAE, ICO) interact with producer networks (such as the Consejo in El Salvador, Anacafe, BSCA) to confront these real issues that affect both sides of the market and squeeze specialty particularly. 

WCR's International multi-location variety trials
This project continues to inspire me. If you’re interested in this you might also enjoy Coffee: Terroirs and Qualities by Montagnon Chris, which — whilst a few years old — is super interesting.

Marta Dalton (Coffee Bird) offers additional thoughts on land value, which aren’t unique to Guatemala. In Kenya many of the older estates have been sold for housing development and factory construction and it’s hard to argue that coffee is a good choice unless we can demonstrate viability and reward beyond a few successful auction winners.

I fully support Marta's desire to see pricing clearly linked to cost of production. In fact — whilst I’ve spent a good part of my career in coffee resisting the idea of ‘brands' and first world ‘ethical-purchasing’ labels in coffee — I wonder whether there is a case for a certification that matches the ideas of the ‘living wage’ campaign here in the UK, not just in coffee but across ‘commodity’ products. When you remove the pejorative word ‘fair’ these programs were built out of real economic concerns that are constantly changing but ever-present, and will remain as long as the wants of the buyer are weighed stronger in a market than the needs of the producer.